PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Arlene, with Chunk the cat, and her boyfriend, Raymond, with Pipsqueak, packing their possessions at their campsite on the Truckee River near Gateway Park in Sparks on Feb. 16. Police evicted about 25 campers from the park the next day.

In the 48 hours before the City of Sparks evicted about 25 homeless people from a three-months-old tent community in Gateway Park on Feb. 17, one couple living in a tarp-draped shelter along the Truckee River bank made a plan.

Arlene, 25, and Raymond, 26, spent two days sorting through their belongings. They packed what they wanted to keep – including a tent, lots of blankets, clothing and a hand-held generator — into five shopping carts. They loaded their cats, Pipsqueak and Chunk, into pet carriers strapped to a small luggage cart. On the evening of Feb. 16, they pushed, pulled and dragged the shopping carts, two at a time, over the Greg Street bridge to the Reno side of the river, and out of Sparks’ jurisdiction.

Reno police were there the next day to tell them they could go anywhere they wanted, just not where they wanted to go (along the river). That also was the message they got from the Sparks police.

“This is the fucked-up thing the cities do, pass people back and forth,” said a man who stopped by Gateway Park during the sweep to contribute food and supplies to campers who had to move on. He didn’t give his name. “It happens every year; just shuffle the problem back and forth across the river.”

The location of Gateway Park is circled. The blue balloons indicate campsites used by unsheltered people during the pandemic. Some represent tent villages and others smaller camps. Dozens of individual camps along the Truckee River, such as on the stretch between Wells Avenue and Fisherman’s Park, aren’t marked on the map.

Moving people around

He’s right, that’s what’s been happening in the Truckee Meadows for decades, local officials confirmed. But during the months that the makeshift village stood in Gateway Park, the three officers of the Sparks Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) team, which was formed in August, visited the camp 33 times.

The cops with HOPE patches on their uniforms assist unsheltered people by working with local organizations and charities to offer them services prior to enforcing the laws that prohibit camping in public areas. The city also is bound by a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Boise vs. Martin, which says citing the homeless when there is not enough shelter space is unconstitutional.

Sparks officials said shelter beds were available Feb. 17, so the Gateway Park removals were legal. Activists who showed up to help residents relocate and some of the remaining campers at the site disputed that assertion. Police arrested one woman who was cited for “obstruction,” but the department declined to release further details Feb. 19.

However, the booking information from the Washoe County Jail is a matter of public record. Melody Allen, 53, was cited for violation of NRS 199.280: “A person who… willfully resists, delays or obstructs a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge any legal duty of his or her office shall be punished {for resisting a public officer}.” Allen and her boyfriend, Matt, had been camped at Gateway Park since November.

The cycle of homelessness

Community activists argue that while the team has helped some of the folks at the camp, the end result is always a “sweep” that scatters residents to other sites on the banks of the Truckee or in the nooks and crannies of the metro area. Existing services and shelters, the activists say, are temporary fixes that, in the long run, perpetuate homelessness. Those who give up their possessions for a few days, weeks or months in a shelter, usually wind up back on the streets without the gear they need to survive.

Natalie Handler, a Reno artist who has been working with other volunteers to help unsheltered people during the pandemic, explains what she has experienced in a Reno News & Review sidebar to this story.

Still, the Sparks’ HOPE team’s philosophy of putting services before enforcement is being used as a model for Washoe County’s other jurisdictions in anticipation of the opening of a new $16.8 million Nevada CARES “super shelter.” The large tent and support structures are being built on the former Governor’s Bowl ball field site on the southwest side of the Spaghetti Bowl highway interchange. Local governments’ plans for the shelter campus and a regional response to homelessness are outlined in a Reno News & Review companion piece to this story.

Forced out of Reno

In Sparks, the HOPE team learned a lot and racked up some successes during the last six months, officers said. The park became an unofficial homeless camp in late October, when Reno officials swept up camps on the other side of the Truckee River and some of those residents wound up at Gateway Park.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A view from the south side of Gateway Park on Feb. 15. Greg Street is on the far side of the line of trees.

“We let them stay here so we could try and do advocacy and get them into housing and things like that,” said Sparks Police Sgt. Patrick McNeely. “We told them, ‘you’re here illegally and we could do what Reno did. We’re not doing that today, but the day will come. Eventually, when we ask you to leave, we’d like your cooperation.’”

Team members attempt to get to know the residents, their stories and their needs, he said.

Empathy and patience

“We know some of them by now, they’ve been through trauma, and have not had an easy life even before the streets,” McNeely said. “We try to get people mental health care, get them into shelter, into programs.”

The officers, social workers and people from community advocacy groups offer to help residents get state identification cards so they can apply for Social Security benefits and other government assistance. They try to connect people with resources including transitional housing, food banks, medical care, behavioral health services, trash clean up assistance and relocation services.

It’s a process that requires empathy and patience, McNeely said.

“We have to break through. There’s people on the street with mental illness, drug and alcohol problems; it’s a mix. With some people it depends on the day. One guy, he was totally on board for housing, then today he cursed us out. We’ll just give him some room and we’ll try again another day.” — Sgt. Patrick McNeely, Sparks Police HOPE team.

Making connections

The people who declined help and moved on, he said, can always change their minds. “We told them that where ever you’re going, we’ll still try to help when you’re ready. We’ll keep trying… There’s help out there and we can plug them in.”  A lot of people living on the streets are qualified for Social Security Disability or other benefits, he said, but they “just don’t know how to navigate the system.”

 By late January, about 43 people called the tent village home, police said. On Feb. 17, about 20 people remained at the site when police and cleanup crews arrived. Some of the residents had entered shelters or been given rooms in motels; others moved on before the eviction deadline. Overall, McNeely said, more than 20 of the residents had gotten signed up for Medicaid and several were able to get ID cards. During the sweep, five people were admitted to shelters and two accepted substance abuse treatment.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Notices announcing the sweep scheduled for Feb. 17 were posted at Gateway Park on Feb. 15

Campers were notified

“Trying to help people it takes time,” McNeely said. “…We’ve had a lot of successes. We gave it three months, but the time came we had to do something.” Campers were told they had to move three weeks ago, he said, and notices were posted in the park Feb. 15 announcing the sweep scheduled two days later. He said the action was being taken in February because of the many service calls involving the park, including allegations of illegal campfires, petty theft, threatening behavior and drug sales. Sparks Police didn’t share any statistics about those calls.

McNeely, who was interviewed prior to the woman’s arrest, said the cleanup went “pretty smoothly.”

The cavalry advances

At about 7:30 a.m. Feb. 17, two mounted police officers arrived at the park. The horses slowly walked among the tents, piles of refuse and property that residents had stacked up over the previous two days.

“Volunteers came out and fed us,” Arleen said. Some had vans and trucks. “They tried to help us by moving our property so we wouldn’t have to leave our stuff. Then at 8 (a.m.) the big party started. Sparks PD, dump trucks, SUVs, front-end loaders and everybody else started rollin’ in.”

She said police told the remaining campers that there was room at the shelters, but she didn’t believe them. “I know there’s not any room, she said. “My mother called and she’s there; there’s no room.” But even if she believed there were beds to be had, she and Raymond wouldn’t go. There are no shelters for unmarried couples and they would be split up. Then, there’s the cats.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: People camped in Gateway Park on Feb. 16.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The same area at noon on Feb. 17 after the campers were removed and clean-up crews worked for about three hours.

Years on the streets

“If we got into a shelter together, a lot of this stuff, I can just say bye to it,” Arlene said, as she loaded blankets into a shopping cart with Chunk, a large blue-eyed cat, perched in the crook of her other arm. “The one thing I will not say goodbye to is my cats. No way! …Whatever you do, don’t tell them they are pretty, they’ll get a complex.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Arlene and Raymond with Chunk and Pipsqueak.

 Arlene, 25, has been living outside for three years and has been camped in Gateway since November. Her partner, Raymond, 26, has spent his adult life on the streets. “I was born at Washoe Med and raised in this county,” Raymond said. “I left foster care at 18 years old… I hate living out here; I’ve been out been out eight years.””

Raymond’s mom, Bonnie, also lived in a tent at Gateway Park. She said she has been homeless for about four years. As a claw suspended from a crane bit into piles of debris and dropped its loads into a dump truck, Bonnie sat in front of a pile of other campers’ belongings stacked on NV Energy’s property next to the park. She faced a hissing propane heater as she peered out from a cocoon of blankets. She asked a visitor where he thought she could go.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Bonnie, who had been camped at Gateway Park since November, sits in front of a propane heater Feb. 17 after Sparks Police swept the campers from the area. The photo was taken with her permission.

‘There’s better ways’

“It’s not right,” she said. “There’s better ways. In Portland they give homeless people a park to stay in. You just can‘t sleep on the benches or bother people, but you can stay in the park… People who look down on us don’t know us at all. They ought to come out and know us before they judge us.”

Bonnie said the HOPE team and the community groups have helped people at the park get identification cards, medical care, food stamps and phones, but she hasn’t had much success getting services.

“I don’t have ID. I tried to get food stamps. I filled out all the paperwork, talked a gal on the phone Dec. 7 and still haven’t heard anything…  I can’t get an ID because I owe a fine. How am I supposed to pay a fine, with no job and I can’t get a job without ID?” — Bonnie, who has been living outdoors for four years.

As crews finished cleaning up the site around noon, police and others spoke to Bonnie about getting into a shelter. Volunteers offered to take her to another campsite. She remained reluctant to move.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A volunteer activist for the homeless speaks to Bonnie the afternoon of Feb. 17 while she sits on property owned by NV Energy adjacent to Gateway Park.

‘No point in trying’

As his mom warmed herself at the heater, Raymond and Arlene talked about the future. “I’d like to live indoors, but all the apartments are hella expensive,” Arlene said. “There’s no point in trying; no way to afford it.”

As the couple crossed the bridge to Reno, a few volunteers stayed at the site to talk to residents who were packed up but unsure which way to go. Community organizations that helped with the outreach efforts at Gateway included Health Plan of Nevada, Foundation for Recovery, Valley View Christian Church, Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST), Karma Box, Veterans Services, and Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE).

Workers from those agencies will be running into Raymond and Arlene again soon, probably along the river’s edge.

“What will we do? I have no idea. It’s kind of lame staying out in the winter. Our tent is warm at night, though. It stayed up in the wind and the snow. Now we got to set up somewhere else — re-do it and probably move again soon.” — Arlene, 25, who has been living outdoors in Reno and Sparks for about three years.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this important coverage. This is a difficult, chronic problem, and I confess to lacking complete solutions. Housing and mental health care are obviously key. However, some fundamental problems with encampments remain: proximity to the Truckee river (source of water and recreation to the entire community), trash/filth (truly astonishing and disgusting amounts), theft (shopping carts, bicycles). These issues turn many citizens against our less fortunate fellow residents. I have seen much better organized, cleaner shanty towns in many third world countries. This is an unacceptable mess; we must do better.

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